By ANGIE FORD/Montana State News

The Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership (BSCSP)—who are they and what are they after? “A balanced energy future.” Says Kathryn Watson, BSCSP’s outreach and communications director. There are many components to that goal, and Watson says that BSCSP’s part in that balanced energy future is referred to in the industry as “CCS” or carbon capture and sequestration.

What is BSCSP? Big Sky Carbon Sequestration Partnership is directed by Montana State University’s Energy Research Institute (ERI). ERI has 230 faculty, staff and students working on balanced energy solutions involving CCS, wind, biofuels, energy efficiency, solar and fuel cells.

Lee Spangler, director of BSCSP, says that it will take all different kinds of fuels to balance the energy of the future. But the process for developing those energies takes time, and in the meantime, we need a way to prevent the billions of tons of Co2 from escaping into the atmosphere.

Carbon sequestration is a controversial issue, and one that not many students around campus were sure about. When random students were stopped and asked what they thought of MSU’s carbon sequestration project, the answers ranged from puzzled looks to worries, “What if it gets in the groundwater?”

Watson says that is a legitimate concern, and took great pains to explain the layers of rock and the strata between. She says that the reason the Kevin Dome site (covering 700 square miles near Shelby, Montana) was chosen is because it is already a reservoir of naturally occurring Co2 that has been trapped in place for 50 million years.

“If you look at the plume from the natural resource and you stack it up against our proposed injection, you can see why there is little reason for concern: the Co2 is already there.” Watson explained that the plume is roughly 4,000 feet underground, under layers and layers of very non-porous cap rock.

“The deepest groundwater table in this area is 700 feet underground. Our injection is way below that—imagine 40 basketball courts end to end—below the groundwater.” Watson also says that because they are federally funded, there  many regulations and permits that they have to go through that are far more stringent than industry practices are.

The process of carbon sequestration takes Co2 before it escapes from industry smoke stacks and captures it, compressing it into a semi liquid form called a “super critical liquid.” It is this form that will be piped almost a mile below the earth’s surface and locked away under layers and layers of solid rock.

In the layer where BSCSP plans to inject more Co2 (in addition to the naturally occurring amounts in the underground Co2 reservoir) there is what the industry refers to as “brine,” an extremely salty liquid beyond hope for any human usefulness. When the C02 (in the form of super critical liquid) is pumped down into the brine, it floats on the surface of the brine for a time. The injection site will be cemented over to prevent the escape of Co2 through manmade holes, and multiple forms of monitoring will be taking place to ensure all goes as planned.

Meanwhile, nearly a mile under the earth, the supercritical C02 is undergoing a transformation: it has sunk to the bottom of the layer of brine, disbursed into the brine, and some of it mineralizes to form solid rocks.

There are still those who doubt, however. Watson says she believes any human has the capacity to change their minds when given new information, and ERI and BSCSP are in the new-information-getting business.

Spangler points out that evidence suggests that geological storage of Co2 can be done safely. “Nature has stored Co2 underground for millions of years in naturally occurring C02 reservoirs, some of which are now being “mined” for EOR purposes.”

Gas and pipeline companies are today storing natural gas in underground formations, and together they have over 10,000 facility-years experience. And, it’s not like the BSCSP is the first to work on carbon sequestration. There are projects all over the U.S, some of which have already completed their Co2 injections and are in the monitoring stage.

Roughly 15 million tons of Co2 have been injected into saline aquifers and monitored over 30 plus years in many countries and reservoirs, including several commercial projects.

Despite their assurances based on research, BSCSP maintains one of their primary goals as outreach and public education. “We aren’t here to make big money,” says Watson, “we are here for education, and to better the community.”

For more information on the Big Sky Carbon Sequestration partnership, including educational videos and graphically complex professional presentations, visit their website at:

Edited by Matt York.